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One Year Later: The Boston Marathon

In our April issue, runner Marissa Hill gave readers a first-person account of what it felt like to be in the Boston Marathon at the time of last year's bombing. Hill, running for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, returned to complete the marathon this year. Here's her story:

Hill getting ready to head to the start line. (Photo courtesy Marissa Hill)

It would be hard to pick a day in my life in which I had experienced more positive energy, more love and hope and community support, than on that special Monday last week when I ran the Boston Marathon. As I headed into my corral I was surrounded by other charity runners, yet no one was really talking about last year.  Everyone seemed positive–focused on the race ahead and how he or she was going to do that day. I popped my headphones in my ears without the sound for the start – I wanted to be able to hear the cheering crowd as I crossed the starting line.

It was hard to believe I was there. While training for and running the 2013 Boston Marathon, I had no interest in ever running a marathon again. And then everything changed. With the terror attacks at the finish line, I felt at a loss.  What could I do to help, to make this better? I quickly vowed to run again—to finish the race. Of course, this was easier said than done.

Training after the tragedy was difficult, and I found myself avoiding thinking about it and not running at all. When I did begin running again, I focused solely on mileage and the training plans; I put the bombings to the side. It was only in the last few weeks up until this year’s marathon that I realized I was still grieving. I knew that after months of training hard and pushing myself physically, I needed to focus on the mental aspect. Really, with any exercise, it is less about physically doing it, and more about mentally willing yourself. During my long training runs in the snow I focused on positivity—how else can you run in freezing temperatures for 20-plus miles? You tell yourself you can.

So that is what I did—that last week before the marathon, I told myself, “Yes, you can.” It was my new mantra. I focused on the anniversary of the bombings, and gave myself permission to feel upset, to feel sadness, loss and heartache. And then I reminded myself that my way of coping, my way of doing something about last year’s tragedy, was to run, to show up again and finish this thing.

I have heard people say there is nothing quite like running Boston, and it is true—the Boston Marathon is special. The people cheering you on, the historic course, the memories from last year—they all came together and pushed me forward. I kept looking for the spot where I was stopped last year, near Heartbreak Hill.  I obviously passed it, but didn’t recognize the exact spot. I knew I was close and kept waiting for terrible hills, and then all of a sudden I saw signs saying “You made it past Heartbreak Hill." Thanks to training and the willpower to keep going this past year, I didn’t even realize I was on the hill!

Hill staying strong well past Heartbreak Hill. (Photo courtesy Marissa Hill)

I hit my wall around mile 24, and everything in me was screaming, “Stop!” And then I was in Boston. I knew, not only from the signage, but also from the crowd screaming and cheering. The flags at each city were very prominent, letting you know when you had reached the next town or city. They were tall and slim, with the city letters being printed lengthwise. So when I saw the sign for Boston, I was pretty excited—I knew I was close! I was in Boston. I was going to finish. “Yes, you can,” I continued to mouth to myself.

Crossing the finish line was extremely emotional for me, as were those last few miles once I reached Boston. I found myself crying at times, and definitely after the race. Having the medal put on, having the volunteers congratulating me, having people thanking me for running, saying “Thank you for coming back!”  My family made plans to see me at mile 6, 14, 22 and then the finish.  But they got stuck in traffic and weren’t there to see me cross.  I wasn’t upset though, because it allowed me time to sit down and process the emotions from the day, and the past year leading up to the race. I knew as soon as I saw them, it would be all hugs, kisses and celebrating. This allowed me some time to let the tears out. This was the first time I saw other runners emotional—I was sitting next to a few different people who were also pretty emotional, and we talked about it—about how we were feeling and if we were here last year as well. It seemed like once the run was over, runners finally felt the ability to let it all out. So before I called my family to meet and begin the celebrating, we sat there for ten minutes or so, processing how big this race really was.

One year later Hill crosses the finish line. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Hill)

Running that distance takes a great toll—I was sure that after those 26.2 miles, I really would be done. And now, having done it, experiencing that overwhelming joy and love that I cannot adequately put into words, I am questioning that. Why stop now? If I can continue to run, to help promote a great cause, to raise much-needed money for charities, why not continue?  I haven’t fully committed to another race yet, but you may just see me out there again in 2015, with a big smile on my face, repeating my mantra. Yes you can.

Photos courtesy of Marissa Hill

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